What I Learned From The Pirates

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Two months after the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series of 1909, my mother presented them with one of their most faithful fans—me. It took them another sixteen years to come up with their next triumph; and there were to be no more world championships after that until I was fifty. Sticking with a team like that just because you happen to have spent your early boyhood in western Pennsylvania is the sort of thing that gives you a reputation for being long-suffering, doggishly loyal, and probably no more eccentric than, say, Don Quixote.

I may as well admit that I was a Pirate fan before I knew they played baseball; I became one out of a provincial pride acquired in infancy. An older brother helped me spell the word Pittsburgh in the National League standings when I was six or so and the team was in first place. If the tabulation had happened to be of freight loadings instead of baseball, I might have grown up to be an enthusiastic fan of pig iron.

From the standings I moved over in the fullness of time to the box scores. Together they were to teach me much of what I know about arithmetic. More important, my conversation around the house began to feature strange gods, totally unknown to the rest of the family. With my siblings I could still discuss works like The Motor Boys, Sink or Swim, and Andy Grant’s Pluck, but these had already taken on for me a quality of squareness, or its pre-World War I equivalent. The nation’s real heroes, I knew perfectly well, were Max Carey, Babe Adams, George Gibson, and other Pirates. I was aware, but not too aware, of Fred Clarke and other giants who had walked the earth in the dim past, five or six years before. And I was sure that the new manager, a fellow named Hugo Bezdek, would soon revive the glories of 1909, which I took for a heritage the way an English boy might take Trafalgar or a Texan boy the Alamo.

Bezdek turned out to be a fourth-place sort of manager, and the Pirates a fourth-rate sort of club, through those early years, but my allegiance was held in place by my environment. My friends, after all, were fellow sufferers, and we no oftener talked of abandoning the team than we did of abandoning our families, which is to say, only occasionally. The question might come up toward the end of a twelve-game losing streak, but for the rest of the time we lived on hope and collected picture cards of the great Pirates of our time—Lefty Grimm, Rabbit Maranville, Wilbur Cooper, and one of baseball’s few concessions then to racial minorities, a Pawnee pitcher by the name of Moses J. Yellowhorse. The Chief—all Indian players were called Chief—won few games, but he was good copy for the town’s sportswriters, who rang all possible changes on his ancestry.

 

One of the great traumas of my childhood occurred in 1921, when the Pirates showed how easily they could throw away a pennant if they really put their minds to it. In late August, within sight of glory for the first time in twelve years, they traveled to New York with a seven-and-a-half-game lead for a series with John McGraw’s Giants. Unbelievably, they lost five straight games and never recovered either their momentum or their morale. The Giants went on to win the pennant, leaving thousands of eleven-year-olds in the Pittsburgh area with cases of cynicism, tics, and intermittent nausea, all of which were to linger for several days before giving way to great expectations for the next season.

That was the fine thing about baseball: no matter how depressing the let-downs, they were always supplanted—from inning to inning, from week to week, from year to year—by visions of splendor soon to come. Some hero would surely hit a homer with the bases loaded in the ninth. Fresh rookies would be coming aboard next spring, each one a potential star of the first magnitude—a dazzling second baseman, say, who would be a joy to watch in the double plays, or an outfielder capable both of great leaping catches to spoil enemy home runs and of knocking the ball out of the park the next time he came to bat. Or perhaps the team would acquire a pitcher who combined the grace of Christy Mathewson with the speed of Walter Johnson. At the very least the hated Giants might fold up and decay over the winter, giving the Pirates a clear track in the spring.

 
 

Given the laws of chance in a pastime that ran to 150 games or so a season—with an endless span of seasons ahead for an adolescent fanatic—how could such hopes fail in the long run? In the short run one could take the bumps and feed on anticipation. Dreamy as it all was, no one could say it was a harmful introduction to a life in which those same elements of vision, failure, and renewed hope would forever appear, disappear, and recur.

Actually watching major league ball-games was an insignificant part of a young fan’s activity. Until 1955 no city west of St. Louis even had a major league team, although all of them had fans. I was among the fortunate for whom a “home team” was nearby, allowing at least the possibility of a rare and thrilling view of heroes in the flesh. From the small town of Scottdale, where I passed my grammar school days, it was some sixty miles to Pittsburgh—not a great distance now, but forbidding enough in the early twenties. There weren’t many highways in our area (we had no car in any case), and the railroad schedule allowed for just one train a day to the great city. I recall no more than two occasions when my busy father could spare the time, and maybe the money, to take me and an older brother for a grand day in town: lunch in a real restaurant and then an afternoon at Forbes Field. This particular brother, who willingly practiced the violin and was accordingly regarded by me as odd, must have gone for the lunch, because he didn’t know the name of a single Pirate. Under the impression that three outs made a full inning, he thought that he was seeing an eighteen-inning game, which may have explained why he dozed through so much of it.

Little as the team profited from my attendance over the years, I was at all times busily involved in its affairs. During the season there was foremost the job of keeping myself well posted on the daily game. Until my family moved to Brooklyn in 1923, this activity meant no more than reading the sports pages of the Pittsburgh Gazette the morning after the game. Commercial radio was in its infancy then, and in Scottdale we were never first with anything.

New York—even that part of it known as Bensonhurst—was a far cry from Pennsylvania with fully fourteen dailies on hand, each with its own staff of glittering sportswriters. Most of the afternoon papers ran editions late enough to carry the results of that same afternoon’s games (night games were undreamed of). And with two or three stationery stores in the neighborhood, it was easy to slip out after supper to sneak a look at the scores, often displayed on the front page in type large enough to allow a boy a quick read before he could be shooed away by an irritated shopkeeper. The details could then wait for the next day, a treat to look forward to if the team had won and, if it had not, then serenely to be endured in the knowledge that the next game, with rosy prospects, was only hours away.

In the first few weeks that followed the hysteria of a World Series and the end of another season, baseball was the dark side of the moon. A feeling of emptiness rather than depression occasionally washed over me, especially when I picked up the paper and found not a line about the only sport that mattered. College football prevailed from October on, and except for local high school games football had never quite gotten to me. The calendar ruled the sports world then, and people would no more dream of scrimmaging in June than they would of canoeing in January.

 

Even in the dead of winter, though, there were bits of relief for the baseball junkie. One could pit two teams of baseball cards against each other on the kitchen table in a game that anyone with a pair of dice might have devised. In mine a two or a four was a ball, a one or a three was a strike; on a five or a six the batter got the wood on the ball, leaving it to successive throws to determine whether he flied out, grounded out, or got a hit—and if so, how much of a hit. It is still a good game, and a lot cheaper than the elaborate baseball board games that now sell for twenty dollars or so.

More exciting, from mid-December on, reports began coming in from what the cliché experts of the press invariably called the Hot Stove League. These were the news stories, speculations, and sheer gossip about player trades, holdouts, and other such activities, all of which reached a climax when the baseball club owners gathered for their annual meeting. There was talk, too, of bringing up brilliant rookies from minor league farm clubs, which the majors controlled and intensely scouted for talent drawn from the country’s sandlots, high school fields, and occasionally college campuses.

Reading those springtime sports pages, one might be baffled rather than pleased—even angry, as I was—to see, for example, that the team was dropping Rabbit Maranville—a superior shortstop, I thought, knowing little of his health or spirits. Of course I knew even less of the man whom Barney Dreyfuss, the team’s crafty owner, had brought in to replace him: Glenn Wright, one of baseball’s magnificent shortstops. With the inimitable Pie Traynor at third, opposing batters would for years hardly dare hit a ball to the left side of the Pirate infield.

Neither could I yet know of other prospective greats then on the horizon, heroes to delight the soul, like the Waner boys, “Big Poison” and “Little Poison,” who were destined, like Traynor and Carey, for baseball’s Hall of Fame. In time one learned to accept change—and even revel in the prospect of it.

Before long it was February, in itself as wretched a month as there is in the calendar, but—and what a but—it was the month in which the call went out summoning ballplayers from hibernation. Daily reports from camps in Florida, Arizona, and California—the Pirates generally trained in Paso Robles, I recall—fed us a steady stream of vital information: how the heroes shaped up, what rookies looked promising, the seeming effect of the winter’s trading—in short, all the gossip of the business that could be swapped with one’s fellow maniacs and tolerated for perhaps a minute or two by others.

Once my family had moved east, and beyond the possibility of my ever getting to Forbes Field again, the Pirates appeared at long last to be on the verge of greatness. That was in the spring of 1923, when I was thirteen. Although I was now technically a Brooklynite, it had not for a moment occurred to me to transfer my allegiance to the Dodgers, much less to the Giants. Especially since new Pirate names were in the air and, with them, a stronger-than-ordinary scent of victory.

Living in alien territory and without Pittsburgh papers to keep me healthy with daily doses of rumor about my own team, I was forced to subsist on such scraps of information as could be had from the New York press. Quite incidentally, that reliance must have done something to develop my lifetime addiction to newspapers; even then there was an inevitable spillover of attention from the sports pages to such other intelligence as the doings of the Harding gang and the peccadilloes of Daddy and Peaches Browning. Curiously, I do not recall being at all caught up in the reporting of the Black Sox scandal, which I learned of in 1920 with the trial of the men who had, incredibly, thrown a World Series for cash. Maybe my interest was limited because they were let off for lack of evidence, even though the newly installed commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, sternly banished them from organized baseball. Or it may be that since the knavery occurred in the American League and the Pirates were in the National, the whole thing was academic to my provincial soul. Or, most likely, I relegated the episode to my subconscious, unwilling to believe that even a tiny handful of heroes might turn crook.

Millions of other fans must have felt the same, because the 1920s were baseball’s golden age. How could it have been otherwise with a galaxy that included Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and George Sisler; Pie Traynor, Rogers Hornsby, and Lou Gehrig; not to mention slightly lesser gods like Dazzy Vance, Zack Wheat, Kiki Cuyler, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Frankie Frisch. And, towering above the field, radiating by himself a light bright enough to obscure the deeds of the Black Sox and lesser villainies, the gargantuan, one-of-a-kind Babe Ruth.

Inevitably I shared in the nationwide worship of the Babe and only wondered why the unfathomable gods should have wasted him on the wrong team in the wrong league. Besides, by then I had not long to wait for the Pirates not only to boast of colorful sluggers of their own but to come finally to glory. They fielded two World Series teams in the twenties, beating the Washington Senators 4 games to 3 in 1925, and two years later taking a trouncing from the hated Yankees, 4 games to 0. That was the Series in which Miljus, the Pirate pitcher, struck out both Gehrig and Bob Meusel in the bottom of the ninth, only to throw the game away, literally, with a wild pitch that allowed Earle Combs to scoot home from third with the winning run.

For thirty-two years after that the Pirates appeared in no World Series and won no pennants. Through much of the forties and fifties they were settled in at a level ranging from mediocre to lowly, losing in one of those years an unbelievable 112 games out of 154. The great days of Traynor, the Waners, and Cuyler were history; the glorious uprising of 1960, featuring Bill Virdon, Dick Groat, and the brilliant Roberto Clemente, was short-lived, and the renaissance of the seventies, with the “family” spirit generated by Willie Stargell, was still far in the future.

Inevitably I shared in the nationwide worship of the Babe and only wondered why the gods should have wasted him on the wrong team in the wrong league.

Meanwhile, Pirate fans drew what comfort they could from the team’s own home-run hitter, Ralph Kiner, the pitching of Bob Friend, and for one brief season the excitement of Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg. After his resplendent career in Detroit, the Tigers ungraciously let him go to Pittsburgh, which was so glad to have him that the management moved in a wall of Forbes Field to accommodate his hitting habits. The spot was known as Greenberg Gardens, but after a season Greenberg retired from baseball, as he had warned, leaving us Pirate fans to do what we always did best —wait ‘til next decade.

Given such long droughts, it was no wonder that when the team exploded in victory, as it did when Bill Mazeroski’s ninth-inning homer toppled the Yankees in the 1960 World Series, rioting and mayhem broke out in the streets of Pittsburgh. On that occasion, and again when the team beat the Baltimore Orioles in the Series of 1971 and 1979, people who knew me and my affliction, even if they didn’t know the Pirates from the ladies of the Bloomer League, showered congratulations on me as if I had personally pitched two or three of the games. Far removed as I was from the baseball scenes of my boyhood, I graciously accepted the congratulations as a tribute to my endurance.

 

After the triumph of ’79 things became very sour indeed. The Pirates plunged into a trough so deep and wallowed there for so long that there were doubts that major league baseball could remain in the city that had hosted the first World Series, back in 1903. Yet only in the dead of night, after dining too well, did I admit an occasional nightmare of the team’s returning as one of those raw expansion clubs in some unlikely spot like Butte, Montana, or, even less likely, as the Pascagoula Pirates, potential champions of the Southeastern Mississippi League.

Even if such is to be their fate, they will have at least one fan on Long Island, a crotchety old fellow who remains sympathetic, recalling like an aging parent the pleasures and pains he has had from their few ups and many downs. But, I hasten to add, that may not be their fate after all. Only last year they finished a season in second place, and I can’t think the world is quite as badly off as from time to time it seems.